Luther Fundamentally Misunderstood St Paul, Part 9: Imputation

By January 24, 2016 Apologetics 4 Comments

Before moving forward into the New Testament, a quick summary of Justification in the Old Testament.

Here’s the essence of that post: In the Old Testament, the verb “to justify’ means ‘to declare’ one to be ‘just’ or ‘righteous’ or ‘in the right.’ When God declares someone ‘righteous’ or ‘reckons’ someone as being righteous, it’s because he sees them to be righteous.

Doesn’t mean God sees them as being ‘perfectly sinless’ and ready to walk directly into heaven.

Nor does it mean that God’s own righteousness or the righteousness of Christ has been legally imputed to them. In fact, it doesn’t have anything to do with the transfer of righteousness from one account to another, or one person to another.

When God describes someone as being ‘righteous,’ it’s just a way of saying that he or she is a faithful and obedient member of God’s covenant family, one who trusts God and walks in his ways, however imperfectly.

Notice that this makes sense of how scripture can speak of Abel as having “received approval as righteous” — again, not because he was perfectly righteous or had righteousness transferred to his ‘account,’ but because he “offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain” (Hebrews 11:4). Because he was someone who trusted God and walked in his ways.

Same with Abraham, whose faith is “reckoned to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6) and Phinehas, who’s zeal is “reckoned to him as righteousness” (Psalm 106:31). Same with Noah, of whom the Lord said, “I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation” (Genesis 7:1). Same with Zechariah and Elizabeth who are described in Luke 1:6 as “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” They weren’t sinless. There was no imputation of an “alien” righteousness to them (Luther’s term). They’re described in this way because they walk in the commandments of God.

Now, with this Old Testament background in mind, I moved forward into the New Testament. I wanted to see what evidences Protestant theologians would bring forward to support the idea that in the New Testament justification changes to mean “Christ’s righteousness being legally credited to those who believe.”


I pulled down from the shelf books on the doctrine of justification written by Protestant scholars.

Slight digression… I’ve noticed that some who respond to me on the side immediately launch into how I’m wrong because “Paul is clear in teaching that we are justified by faith and not works.” I have to remind them that this is not even what I’m talking about at present. Right now I’m talking about the meaning of justification, the nature of justification, what justification is.

After this we’ll talk about what Paul means when he says faith and not works. And what we have to say about that will make the ears of all who hear tingle. I promise. This is where I believe Luther completely misunderstood Paul. But back to justification…

So I went to the shelves and began to read, and the first thing that stood out was the realization that there is no passage in the New Testament where justification is actually described as the legal imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Not one.

Instead, it’s viewed as something implied.

Which of course would have to be the case, when you think of it. After all, if there existed some clear statement of the Reformation view, it wouldn’t have taken more than 1500 years for someone to formulate the doctrine.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a truth being implied rather than explicitly stated. The question is whether the thing one sees as implied really is being implied. That’s the question. And for the life of me, I couldn’t see where the Reformation view was implied in the passages that were supposed by Protestant writers to imply it.


For example, it was common for them to cite passages in the New Testament where righteousness or justification (same Greek word) is described as being a “gift” and see that as somehow implying imputation. The idea was: since St Paul in Romans 5:17 speaks of “the free gift of righteousness,” this must mean that we are credited with Christ’s righteousness.

But this doesn’t follow at all. Why couldn’t righteous being a gift mean that God, as a gift, makes us righteous?

Protestants and Catholics alike view justification as God’s gift. We just have different views of what justification is. So the fact that it’s described as a gift doesn’t imply the Protestant view any more than it does the Catholic.

Protestant writers would point out that the verb “to justify” normally means in Scripture “to declare someone righteous” rather than “to make someone righteous.” Somehow this was seen as implying imputation.

But again, this doesn’t imply the Protestant view of justification any more than it does the Catholic view. It’s true (as we saw last week in Deuteronomy 25:1) that when a judge ‘justifies’ the righteous and ‘condemns’ the guilty, he isn’t making the righteous, righteous or the guilty, guilty; he’s declaring them to be what they are. But (again) he’s declaring them to be what we sees them as actually being. God could be ‘declaring’ us righteous because through faith in Christ he has begun a process of making us righteous and like with Abel, Noah and Abraham, he declares us to be what he now sees us to be — not perfectly but truly.

It’s hard for me to remember my exact thoughts, it’s been so many years. But I do remember reading the sections on justification in a number of Protestant works and being surprised at the kinds of things that were taken as evidence of imputed righteousness that didn’t evidence the Protestant view any more than they did the Catholic view.


And then, there was this problem.

In at least two places in the New Testament, justification is used in a sense that doesn’t seem to be about people being ‘declared righteous,’ but about people being ‘freed’ from sin in a practical sense, about the power of sin being broken in their lives.

For instance, in Romans 6 St Paul is talking about how in our baptism we were united with Christ in his death and in his resurrection in order that we might “no longer be enslaved to sin” (vs. 6). He says that in our baptism into Christ we were freed from the dominion of sin. Because of this, we should no longer allow sin to “reign” in our bodies “to make you obey their passions” (vs. 12).

In other words, it’s clear that in this passage Paul is not talking about our ‘legal status’ or ‘position’ in Christ or anything like that. He’s talking about something that happened to us in our baptism. He’s talking about the transforming power of the Spirit that has broken the dominion of sin in our lives. And here’s the punch line: he refers to this as our having been “justified from sin” (vs. 7).

In fact, it’s so abundantly evident to translators that Paul has in mind a real change having taken place in us, about our being ‘made’ righteous rather than being ‘declared’ righteous, that they routinely translate “justified” in verse 7 as “freed.”

“For he who has died is freed (justified) from sin.”


In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 we find something similar, where Paul uses the word “justified” in a context where he seems to have transformation on his mind and not the mere declaration of a legal status.

He’s talking to the believers in Corinth about how they used to be “unrighteous.” He says they used to be immoral, idolaters, adulterers, revilers, robbers, etc. But no longer. What brought about the change? “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

Here’s the thing. If Paul thinks of justification in terms of the legal crediting of righteousness, and not as something that involves a real change in us, it’s strange that he lists ‘justification’ after ‘washing’ and ‘sanctification’ (“You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified”) and it’s strange that he describes all three as coming about “in the Spirit of our God.” We think of the imputation of Christ’s righteous as a work of the Father. Transformation is associated with the work of the Spirit.

It just sounds like Paul is talking here about real experienced internal change and not legal imputation. You Corinthians used to be immoral but now you’ve been changed by the Spirit of God through your washing, your sanctification, your justification, and you are no longer like that! Doesn’t sound like he’s thinking of justification in legal terms.


Luther and serious Reformation-minded Protestants since had insisted that it was absolutely critical that justification be utterly distinguished from sanctification. Justification had to be understood as the legal imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Our renewal in the image Christ may be a process, but our justification, by which we are ‘saved,’ is not.

But when it came to presenting the actual evidence that the apostles thought of justification in these terms, it seemed to me as thin as the thinnest of soups. I didn’t see it. This didn’t make me Catholic, but it opened me to hearing the case for another way of putting the scriptural puzzle pieces together. What would be another way of thinking about justification?

Now, for twenty years I had been (primarily) reading the Reformers and their descendants. But now I was ready to hear what others had to say. I started reading Catholic theologians. At the same time I continued reading — and more extensively than ever — what more contemporary Protestant theologians were saying. During this time I learned something that was a real shocker.

I learned that over the past several decades an increasing number of Protestant (not Catholic) biblical scholars have begun to question and, a number of them, abandon the doctrine of imputation as something not really taught in the Bible.

For instance, I read where New Testament scholar Robert Gundry said,

The doctrine that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believing sinners needs to be abandoned…. The doctrine of imputation is not even biblical. Still less is it ‘essential’ to the Gospel… The notion is passe, neither because of Roman Catholic influence nor because of theological liberalism, but because of fidelity to the relevant biblical texts.

And apparently he wasn’t the only one. He went on to say that “Other recognized scholars could easily be added to the list, so many in fact that it would not exaggerate to speak of a developing standard in biblical theological circles.”

Imagine my reaction to reading this. I had been struggling for years with passages in Scripture that didn’t seem to fit the Reformation model. I had learned that Luther’s doctrine of imputation was essentially brand new with him. I had come to believe that nothing in the Old Testament supported it. I’d come to believe that the evidence for it in the New Testament was thin, thin, thin.

And now, I’m reading a well-known Protestant New Testament scholar, and he’s talking about how there is a “new developing standard in biblical theological circles.” He’s describing a list of recognized Protestant scholars who are abandoning the Reformation doctrine of imputation as “not even biblical” and not “essential to the Gospel.”

And they’re doing it, he says, not because they’re being influenced by Roman Catholicism or by some form of theological liberalism, but out of fidelity (faithfulness) to what the texts actually say.

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  • Douglas Pearsall says:

    This exactly what is leading me to the Catholic church.But to put it more simply,God I believe made me realize that I was rotten and heading to hell,and that without a change and that means being made righteous,no one makes it to heaven,this I finally had to embrace as the stark reality.So I in turn knew that the salvation and grace I had only knew could not be reality.I need Gods grace but I must actually have it,not just believe I have it.

  • Jim Dowling says:

    I am enjoying this series immensely as I am a big fan of Ken Hensley, but aren’t things getting too complicated? Doesn’t the Bible say in Romans 5:19, ” …so through the obedience of one many will be MADE righteous.”? There is no mention of an imputation or a declaration of righteousness. Other passages such as Hebrews 10:14 and Heb 12:23 speak of being “made perfect.” How else can we become a child of God? Scott Hahn says that a judge might declare a person innocent when he was guilty but if he did, he would not adopt that person into his family. For us to become adopted children of God, we would have to be made righteous not simply declared to be so.

    • Jim Kolan says:

      I’ve enjoyed the series too and have learned more about Protestantism and justification than I ever thought necessary. I do want to thank Jim Dowling for presenting a very simple argument for the Catholic view. But it still takes a willing mind to properly interpret even Romans 5:19, so let’s keep reading and learning!

  • Joe Brinson says:

    As a Lutheran, who was born and raised SBC, I am really enjoying this series. Yes, it is difficult to reconcile so many NT verses, which are so clear about obedience, with sola fide. And, it’s really hard to explain James. I have been wrestling with this for years. Thanks for sharing your clear and concise analysis.

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